What Is a Feminist Play, Anyway?
What does it mean to describe a play as feminist? What are you looking for when you put out a call for "feminist" scripts? This series is an exploration of possible answers from different angles by WIT Online, a journal of the League of Professional Theatre Women.
Last year, playwright Elaine Romero put out an informal call for feminist plays. I wanted to participate, and as I looked at my body of work to select a play, I went into a bit of a tizz. What is a feminist play? Are all my plays automatically feminist just because I am a feminist? I’ve had that call for scripts in the back of my mind for a while, wondering what it means for my own work and for interpreting work generally. In this series of blogs, I will open that question up to the hive mind. What is a feminist play? Can a feminist play be written by a man? Does the main character have to be a woman? Does that woman have to be “good” or “right” or fighting for her rights or what, exactly, what? In starting to stir these questions in my own mind, I decided to go back to the source, and get a definition from Elaine Romero.
“At this point, I've allowed the playwright to self-select their own definition and feminist identity,” says Romero. “It has worked beautifully. I have not received work that did not meet my thought of what feminism would operate like in a play. In terms of the Bechdel Test, I think it's how you apply it. I love the test as an eye-opener of what happens to female characters often on stage. And as with all things, I hate the idea of a test that tells us what we should or should not do.”
I like the openness of that, but still craved a specific and definite example. I found one.
Can a feminist play be written by a man? Does the main character have to be a woman? Does that woman have to be ‘good’ or ‘right’ or fighting for her rights or what, exactly, what?
Sylvia Milo’s play The Other Mozart is a monodrama about Mozart’s sister and fellow composer Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart. “Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own” imagined what would have happened if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister. With Nannerl Mozart we can actually trace what happens—from well-documented contemporary accounts and newspaper reviews of both children touring as two child prodigies, through the practical decision to put all family resources toward Wolfgang’s success, all the way to Nannerl’s marriage and her playing alone on a broken harpsichord. We don’t have to imagine, and her story is symbolic of so many other women’s stories,” says author and performer Milo. (Read a previous piece about The Other Mozart in this series here.)
Here is a play I would call explicitly feminist, a play about a forgotten and suppressed history, about an artist lost for no reason beyond her sex. The stereotypical rap on explicitly political plays (including feminist ones) is that they are agit-prop, not real art, or they are boring. But The Other Mozart boasts a terrifically theatrical set-and-costume-in one:
Says Milo, “The show is set in and on its costume: a stunning dress created by Polish designer Magdalena Dąbrowska, some eighteen feet in diameter, which spills over the entire stage. Its centerpiece is a corset sculpture by Miodrag Guberinic. In the dress are hidden all the props used in the performance. For much of the play it reads more as Nannerl’s world than as a garment. Miodrag created the sculpture as a cage: panniers stripped of all but their skeleton, revealing a device as much of torture as of fashion. Together these symbols of womanhood and status begin as playthings and gradually become her responsibility.”
But what about stories that are not specifically about women, or women’s history, or even written by women? Mac Roger’s sci-fi trio The Honeycomb Trilogy which includes the plays Advance Man, Blast Radius, and Sovereign wouldn’t seem to belong in the same universe as The Other Mozart. These are two-act, multi-character, science fiction extravaganzas. They each pass the Bechdel Test—full of women (and men) who have plenty to say, and not much of it about romance. The main character, Ronnie (short for Veronica), is a true hero. But she’s not always a particularly noble character. She makes compromises and flawed decisions and brutal sacrifices on her way to victory. And that is why I would call these feminist plays. They may not be “about” feminism, but they are the type of work a feminist would be happy to act in or direct or design.
I asked Rogers if this was a specific choice of his and how it came about.
“For a very long time as a younger playwright (I'm talking college-age and a few years thereafter), I had a fiendishly hard time writing women as protagonists, and sometimes I struggled to write women at all...I don't know what flipped the switch for me, but it suddenly occurred to me at some point in my 20s: ‘What do you mean you can't write women? You're surrounded by women! Just pay attention!’ I think a lot of well-intentioned men think the mistake is that they're not making women awesome or badass enough, and try to correct for that by either making women the ones who are always the morally right voice in any conversation, or they write them to know tons of kung-fu and shooting and show them kicking a bunch of dudes asses. Some of this stuff has its place, but to me it’s not a replacement for what I see as the more crucial mistake men make writing women: we don't make them fully human. They're symbols of strength, or moral uprightness, or our own resentment at rejection, or any number of things along those lines, but they're projections of our fears and desires, not freestanding characters.”
This brings me back to Elaine Romero’s very open definition, so I’ll include some of her recommendations. You could start with her play Catalina de Erauso. She also lists Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, The Bachelors by Caroline V. McGraw, Gum by Karen Hartman, Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel, Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead!) by Jami Brandli, and Behind the Eye and Lasso of Truth by Carson Kreitzer.
That’s a very partial list. I would love to see more examples and recommendations in the comments. Because “what is a feminist play anyway?” isn’t a question I’m answering in this blog series. It’s a question I’m asking.